13 December 2011

How I Wrote 100k in 30 Days Despite Knowing I Couldn't

There's been a lot of chit chat in the writeosphere recently about increasing output and speed. If you haven't read it already, Rachel Aaron's post on going from 2000 to 10 000 words per day is well worth checking out.

Why is speed good? Jay Ridler has some thoughts on how speed is productive when it comes to writing fiction, although not necessarily when it comes to other types of writing. As he experimented with writing a story a week and other challenges, he notes, "'Fast writing' turned my enthusiasm into work, and over time, I got better and sold more as I got more and more stories out and into publication and, hopefully, improved my game." On the topic of shooting for a 10,000 word day, Zoe Winters writes, "I want to be prolific. Not because I want to produce shit, but because I want to stop wasting my work time and actually work during my work time." Amen, sister. (p.s. the next day she totally did it.)

In today's market, speed is advantageous because we are in many ways entering a new pulp era. Okay, there is less actual pulp, and more digitization, but books and magazines have never been so ubiquitous and cheap and often awesome. Getting your name out there has to be as much about the sheer volume of work you have in circulation as it is about that one great story or novel that you wrote last year, or about pimping the work you do have out.

For these reasons and more, I've been interested in boosting my speed for quite some time. In November I had what I can only describe as a massive creative breakthrough, which was accompanied by a massive speed breakthrough. Here is what happened. I hope you can take something from it that's useful for you.

I wrote a novel in November. Not half of a novel, not a novella: a novel. 100,489 words. I finished the story arc, I fleshed out the main characters, I know what the story is about, and the plot makes sense: not bad for a first draft. These were the tools and preconditions that went into making that happen.

NaNoWriMo. I like big challenges. I am an extrovert, so it helps me to know that I'm virtually and literally surrounded by writers all moving toward a common creative goal. My NaNoWriMo regional chapter is full of amazing writers. As always, the social element of November helped keep me motivated.

Planning, but not too much planning. I used Lani Diane Rich's schematic, the Seven Anchor Scenes, to plan the first three major turning points of my story before November began. Once I knew where I needed to be, writing became a matter of leapfrogging to the next major turning point. At the beginning of November I knew how my novel would end, but only a little bit about what would go on in the middle or how the climax would shake down. I figured that out as I went.

Training. I spent most of 2011 writing short stories. I didn't quite make the Write1, Sub1 weekly challenge - okay, not by a long shot - but I did write a whole bunch of new stories. I know a few novel writers who eschew writing short stories, but for me, practicing the structure of beginning, middle, and end over and over really helped me when it came to writing a longer narrative. Simply put, I got better at connecting cause and effect in a logical way. That skill helped me immensely in November.

Stickers. You read that right. This tool is 100% about appealing to my inner kid. Most of the time, I get a sticker on my calendar for every day that I accomplish two goals: I have to read some fiction by someone else, and I have to write, edit, and/or submit something. During November, I suspended the "reading" rule and promised myself a big sticker on every day that I contributed to my word count.

I didn't tell anyone that I was attempting the 100k challenge. I downloaded lovely NaNo word count wallpapers from Kiriska's Deviantart files and put the 100k version up on my computer, but that was the only outward sign of my secret challenge.

I didn't make myself any promises. I thought, let's try this out. I knew I could write 3334 words in a day. I didn't believe that I could do that every single day for 30 days: in fact, I would have said that I knew it was impossible for me.

I didn't think about possibilities or my capabilities. I thought about my story and I thought about the scene or scenes I planned to write that first day. I did allow myself to fantasize, just a little bit, about writing a complete story arc in one month.

I started strong. Day one, I wrote 3714 words. By the end of day two, I had 7604 words. Day three, 11,957. Day four, 13,599. At that point, I had something going on: I had a sticker chain. Four stickers, a stick man saying "Nice Work," a couple of planets, and a stick girl saying "Super!" Day five, I put up a cute dog sticker and had 16,725 words. Something magical happened: I was loathe to break the sticker chain. There was no way I was not writing from that point on. The momentum was rolling, and I went with it.

I wrote fairly consistently, though not to a punitive degree. Some days my schedule was more conducive to writing than others. On the 12th of November I wrote a mere 545 words. On many days, I balanced lower word counts by writing 4k or more. In the end, I averaged 3350 words per day.

I shirked responsibilities and commitments. I shuffled my schedule and I deprived myself of sleep. Anything I could put off, I did. "I can do that in December" became my mantra. When I absolutely needed sleep, I took it in naps in the afternoon, traditionally my least productive time of day.

I did most of my writing between the hours of 9pm and 2am. I found that producing massive word count really depended for me on knowing there would be no interruption, and that however long it took, I would not be disturbed.

I should add here that I work part-time and most of my work is in the evening and on weekends. I am also a night owl. I do not think that I could have written quite this much if I had full-time work to attend, but who knows? There are ways to carve out more time than I did. I did not personally resort to using paper plates or eating takeout exclusively, but it could be done.

I passed the 50k mark sometime in the wee hours of the 16th of November. Hitting half of my goal at the halfway point of the month was a huge boost. I won't lie: I was tired. I felt and looked like twenty miles of bad road. But I was doing so much! I knew I could keep going.

The further I went, the fewer things I did other than write. In the latter half of the month, housework, any outside responsibilities that I could pass off onto someone else, and socializing went right out the window. Beyond basic self care and walking the dog, I was dead to the world. I was tired, but it was awesome. It felt amazing to make writing the centre of my life.

It took a good solid five days into December before I started to feel human again. But boy oh boy, did hitting that 100k mark ever feel good, as did writing the final scene of the novel. I still get a charge out of looking at my calendar page for the month:

In the end, I think basically I hypnotized myself through a combination of stickers and getting a strong start. After years of playing with different types of outline, I happened upon a minimal structure that encouraged maximum output without strangling my muse. I didn't limit myself by thinking about the challenge or how hard it was. I just carried on forward. I should probably add that I liked my idea, I was playing in a research area that I know backwards and forwards, and I have some substantial emotional investment in telling the kind of story I was writing. If any of those tricks works for you, I would be delighted to know.

Yes, Sally? I see you've got your hand up. What's that? Lots of writers say that the faster you go the crappier your writing will be?

Well, Sally, I've got a hypothesis for you: that's just wrong. Before you get all up in arms, allow me to demonstrate. Writing 10 or 20 words a day would not be productive or quality-inducing for most people. Unless you have superhuman powers of concentration in between writing sessions, 50 words a day would just result in choppy prose with compromised continuity. Writing 100 words a day, ditto, unless you're writing all Drabbles, all the time.

It is simply untrue that writing more slowly is more productive or more conducive to excellence. What people mean when they make this claim is that writing a certain number of words per day - whatever that number is for them - is conducive to excellence for them. No one can say what your optimal writing frequency is, except you.

For me, the NaNoWriMo standard of 1667 wpd was not enough. I lost traction on my previous NaNoWriMo efforts because I wasn't writing enough stuff in the course of a day. Pushing the speed on a long project was the key to producing a higher quality, coherent first draft. Each day I wrote, I knew I was going to be hitting a scene where something major happened. When I was going for 1667 wpd, that wasn't always the case. Those major events helped focus my daily writing. In terms of the big picture, writing full tilt for a month allowed me to keep the whole thing in my head. Even now, two weeks after the end of November, I have a clear picture of how I will need to add to, subtract from, and tweak what I've got to make it work in second draft.

The key is finding your frequency. What is your magic number, the raw word count value that will maximize your enthusiasm for your story? As it turns out, mine is a lot higher than I thought. I would like to propose that you will never find out your own magic number unless you try for a run of larger numbers than you usually write.

It may be that your ideal frequency is on the low side. Sarah Van Den Bosch, after learning that Graham Greene wrote The End of the Affair in 500-word daily chunks, restricted her writing to 500 words a day precisely. She concluded,
Forcing yourself to stop before you feel you’re finished keeps you thinking about the story and when you’re thinking about your story, you can’t help but to keep pushing it forward even if it is only in your mind. Not only that, but I found myself scrutinizing more over word choice. What would be the best fit for that sentence? Is that really what I want to say?
The key here is to find the number of words that helps you continue to think about the story in between your writing sessions. It could be that for you, like Sarah Van Den Bosch, 500 words per day is enough to keep the story alive in your mind. For me, the number is higher.


Cate Gardner said...

Excellent post, Elizabeth and congrats on the 100k.

Deborah Walker said...

Just incredible, Elizabeth. This post is packed with so many tips.

I like the idea of a Seinfield chain, the internal motivation you get when you don't want to break the chain. In your case bolstered by stickers.

I also like how you talk of hypnotising yourself. By not unbelieving it couldn't be done.

I had some good results myself, using a technique on Rachel's blog Specifically keeping a note of time actually spent writing, really upped my word count. But what do you know I've slacked off in December. I managed to hit 40K of submittable fiction, which was very good for me.

Hmm, maybe it's time to get back to it. The year ain't over.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Thanks, Cate! I still can't believe I did that.

Debs, I was surprised by the effectiveness of the Seinfeld chain / sticker chain. The key is getting one going early on in the month or year, if you're doing a true Seinfeld chain. It appeals to your inner perfectionist, if you've got one of those.

I loved Rachel's ideas. I do need to keep note of time spent actually writing / editing, as opposed to sitting at my desk and futzing around online or whatever. I imagine that tracking it would help keep me focused.

A typical work day for me looks like: ten minutes on, five minutes off. Five minutes on, ten minutes off. Two minutes on, two minutes off. Get up to make a snack. End up sweeping the floor. Half an hour later, return to desk. Reward self with ten minutes of internet time for sitting at desk.

I'm sure I could do better with the time I've got.

Sarah Mäkelä said...

Wow! That's really impressive. Congrats! You've given me something I want to try out next year. LOL

I know what you mean about reaching a magic number and quantity not meaning less quality. I also do better when I write a high word count because like what you said, it keeps my head in the story. I'm trying to figure out where to go next, and it's easier to keep track of the story since it's coming at a decent pace.

Margo Lerwill said...

I love this post. My experience trying to writing 50,000 words in a month (for the first time, this past October) made me realize some of the same things--success breeds more success, writing faster doesn't mean writing poorly, etc. And I can't agree enough that we're in a new pulp era, with the midlist thriving in self-publishing...when they put the work out as fast as they can without losing quality.